Suppose Congress passed a law that abolished secret-ballot elections for membership in Congress. Instead, each candidate, and his or her campaign workers, collected signatures of support from voters. The signatures would be solicited face to face from each voter, who could give his or her signature to only one candidate in each election. The winning candidate in any congressional district would be the one who collected signatures from a majority of the district’s voters. Would you support such a change in the law? I certainly would not.
After all, in the privacy of a voting booth a citizen can cast an honest vote. No one is watching or applying pressure to sway the vote one way or the other. All the campaigning is over, and the voter is left alone to make a private decision. Unless the voter tells, no one knows what the decision was. In contrast, a person who gathers signatures does so in favor of a specific candidate. The solicitor’s job is to persuade the voter to sign, and he knows who does and who does not. An unscrupulous solicitor could retaliate or threaten to do so against a nonsigner. The selection of the winning candidate would not be free. It would be implicitly coercive.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides that employers may insist on a secret-ballot election when their employees vote on whether they will be represented by a union in collective bargaining. An employer may agree to recognize a union for collective bargaining on the basis of signatures that union organizers have solicited from workers, but no employer can be forced to do so. When a union tries to organize the workers in a non-union workplace, it must collect the signatures of at least 30 percent of the workers in order to force the employer into a secret-ballot election. However, no amount of signatures, not even 100 percent, can force an employer to recognize a union without a secret-ballot election.
The American union movement is not the American labor movement. In the private sector only 10 percent of the work force is unionized, and that percentage is getting smaller and smaller. By 2000 private-sector unionization will be down to no more than 7 percent, just where it was in 1900. Leo Troy, a labor economist at Rutgers University, calls this the symmetry of history.
John Sweeney, the overwrought president of the AFL-CIO, is aware of his increasing irrelevance in the private sector and is desperate to do something about it. He is striving, for example, to organize the workers in the nursing-home industry by enlisting the aid of well-intentioned, but ill-informed, clergy and journalists to pressure owners of nursing homes to recognize unions on the basis of gathered signatures rather than secret-ballot elections. Some employers have capitulated to the pressure. Thus their employees are forced to accept the representation “services” of unions and even to become forced payers of union dues without ever having the chance to vote on it.
Worse yet, the AFL-CIO is proposing that Congress change the NLRA to force employers to recognize unions whenever organizers collect the signatures of a majority of workers at any workplace. It claims that elections take too long and that employers have an opportunity to campaign against unionization before the votes are cast. Union leaders assert that employers should have nothing to say about unionization. It should be a matter left between workers and those who solicit their signatures.
Without putting too fine a point on it, unions and their organizers have a reputation for aggression and violence. And that reputation is well deserved, as documented in a huge study of union violence undertaken by researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It is reasonable for workers to fear that if they refuse the blandishments of union organizers collecting signatures, they will pay a heavy price. In any other setting, we would call such an arrangement extortion.
Shame on those employers who turn their workers over to labor unions without a secret-ballot election. And shame on Congress if it ever capitulates to the unions’ demands for signature-based recognition in place of the secret ballot. In 1996 labor unions spent a total of $300 million in financial and in-kind donations, most of which they didn’t have to report, supporting politicians they think are sympathetic to their agenda. Will Congress ever sell the right to secret-ballot elections in exchange for campaign donations? I hope not, but Congress has done little to justify anyone’s confidence in its common sense. As Will Rogers said, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as we do when the baby gets hold of a hammer.”